JERUSALEM, May 5 – The Hebrew prayers reverberate through the humble Catholic chapel in Jerusalem where whitewashed walls are adorned with a small metal cross and two pictures of Jesus lined with Hebraic inscriptions.
The worshippers are part of a tiny Hebrew-speaking Catholic community, some of them descendants of Holocaust survivors, that has quietly kept the faith in the heart of Jewish state for half a century and will remain in the shadows during the visit by Pope Benedict XVI.
"Shalom Hamashiach," the church members quietly say, using the Hebrew phrase for "Hail the Messiah," as two white-robed priests offer communion in front of the altar in their church, a beautifully restored 19th century building just off a bustling Jerusalem street.
With just 400 faithful, the Hebrew-speaking Vicariate is dwarfed by the much larger Palestinian Christian community, estimated at some 180,000 in Israel and the Palestinian territories, which will be the main focus of the pope’s eight-day visit starting Friday.
Established in 1955 by a small group which included several converted Jews, some of them Holocaust survivors, the vicariate largely keeps to itself in a country founded as a Jewish state in which Christians are often suspected of being missionaries.
The unique use of Hebrew in all religious rites at the church began after the creation of Israel in 1948, when the nearly 4,000 Catholics living within the Jewish community searched for a rite of their own, said the Hebrew-speaking Catholic community’s leader, David Neuhaus.
"All of the other Christians in Israel were members of the Arab community and there was a need to find a religious framework for those Christians living in the Hebrew-speaking Jewish community," the 47-year-old monk said.
Apolinari Szwed, who heads the Jerusalem parish, sees himself as part of Israeli society, despite the community’s peculiar position within a society in which Jewish religion and ethnicity are so tightly entwined.
"The reality of my community is that of any other Israeli. They live their lives just like any Israeli but believe in Jesus," said Szwed, 41, who arrived in Israel from Poland 16 years ago.
Beyond the practical necessity that led to the creation of their community, the Hebrew Catholics "shared a sense of duty in the 1950s to inform the Church of its Jewish origins, of Jesus’s Jewish roots and of the ties between the two faiths," Neuhaus said.
The group has faced suspicions from both Jews and Christians over the years.
"We still encounter the suspicion of the local Palestinians, who think we are a Zionist Christian body supporting Israel," Neuhaus said. "But we have no political agenda and our members are of different stripes."
In an open letter, the community stressed it seeks a "life of unity and peace in this Holy land."
"With our teacher, Pope Benedict XVI, we open our own hearts to share peaceful and respectful life with both Jews and Arabs, and with our various Christian brothers and sisters.
The Hebrew Catholics are also constantly at pains to counter any suspicions among the Israeli authorities or the population at large that they are intent on proselytising among their Jewish compatriots.
Instead they have tried to act as a model for efforts to heal Jewish distrust of Christianity following centuries of persecution and anti-Semitism that culminated in the Nazi Holocaust.
Evidence of the deeply ingrained animosity finds expression even in the modern Hebrew language.
Linguists say the modern Hebrew word for Jesus, Yeshu, is derived from the word, Yeshua or Yehoshua, which was given by rabbis in the Middle Ages and which is in fact an acronym of the expression "may his name and memory be obliterated."
Also, the Hebrew word for a Christian priest, Komer, originates in a Biblical term signifying a worshipper of idols. Neuhaus uses the term Cohen, the same name for the Jewish priests who worked in the Temple.
On the Christian side, it was only in 1959 that Pope John XXIII abolished the term "perfidious" to describe the Jews in the liturgy.
The tiny Hebrew-speaking Vicariate still maintains centres in each of Israel’s four main cities.
Its members include Christians married to Jews, monks and nuns who live in Israel out of solidarity, Christians who immigrated from the former Soviet Union and Jews who converted.
Neuhaus himself was born into a Jewish family that fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s for South Africa. After immigrating to Israel in 1979, he took the rare and unpopular step in the eyes of many Israelis and was baptised at the age of 26, three years before entering a monastery.
Relations between Israel and the Vatican have improved over the past couple of decades but suspicion of the Church still runs high in some Israeli circles.
"As long as there are Holocaust survivors living in Israel, the opinion towards the Catholic church will remain negative," Joshua Schwartz, a professor at the Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.
"A large part of Jewish society thinks that the Catholic Church in Europe was guilty of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust."